Drug Use Rampant in East Afghan Province

Locals call on officials to do more to combat heroin use among young people.

Drug Use Rampant in East Afghan Province

Locals call on officials to do more to combat heroin use among young people.

Sharaf sat under a tree in Jalalabad’s Saraj al-Emarat park, his hands trembling. Wearing clothes that looked as if they had gone unwashed for months, the frail 27-year-old attempted to conceal a small object in his hand.

Asked what it was, he retorted, “It’s heroin. Can’t you see?”

Only two years ago, Sharif was an officer in the Afghan police force, but it was that job that brought him into contact with illegal drug use.

“Most of our friends smoked hashish. They’d give it to me as well,” he recalled, declining to say which part of Afghanistan he served in. “I gradually became a heroin addict. Many policemen are drug addicts.”

Heroin users like Sharif are a common sight in the public parks of Jalalabad, the administrative centre of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. Young men can be seen openly taking drugs in leisure areas like Farm e Hada and the Behsud Bridge gardens, as well as the Seraj ul-Emarat and Amir Shahid parks, next to the provincial governor’s office.

Police spokesman Hazrat Hussein Mashriqiwal told IWPR that the heroin sold in the city was produced from raw opium in remoter parts of Nangarhar.

“We are not negligent about it. We have seized more than 400 kilograms of opium and over 40 kilograms of heroin and other drugs in the past six months,” he said, adding that police had arrested more than 70 smugglers and dealers.

Carrying out arrests was not easy, because of the secretive way the criminal gangs worked, he said.

“The smugglers also use women and children to carry drugs,” he added. “Our security personnel have arrested them several times.”

Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, spokesman for Nangarhar governor Ataullah Ludin, said that his office was aware of the problem and had instructed police and the counter-narcotics agency to arrest dealers and get addicts into treatment.

“Police personnel and members of the [counter-narcotics] commission monitor these areas sometimes and arrest suspects,” Abdulzai said.

The Kabul government and the international community have been running a counter-narcotics campaign since the United States-led invasion of 2001, with limited success given that Afghanistan remains the world’s top producer and exporter of heroin.

A survey conducted in 2009 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that there were between 90,000 and 100,000 drug addicts in the eastern zone, which covers Nangarhar plus the Laghman, Kunar and Nuristan provinces.

No further research on use has been done since then, but Hajji Ahmad of the counter-narcotics agency in Nangarhar estimates that there are around 50,000 addicts in his province alone.

The problem is particularly acute among younger people. Matiullah Ahmadzai, head of the provincial youth affairs department, said unemployment and ineffective counter-narcotic strategies made things worse.

“Although the governor has set up a commission to combat vice, alcohol and other drugs are still being sold and used in Jalalabad,” he added.

Although Ahmadzai’s department has no specific budget to tackle these problems, he says it has launched public awareness campaigns in cooperation with other agencies both in the city and surrounding rural districts.

Narcotics use also puts pressure on public healthcare services which are already overburdened.

Wahid Ahmad Haidari, director of an addiction clinic in Nangarhar, said there were three such centres across the province with a total capacity of 60 beds, all of which were currently occupied.

“Treating addicts is very difficult. We do not have any more resources,” he said, noting that given the right treatment, good outcomes could still be achieved, but prevention was always better than cure.

“We have treated addicts and they’re now working and leading normal lives,” he said. “The government needs to take this very seriously. It must prevent cultivation and smuggling of drugs. Imams must make people aware of it in their sermons in the mosques. And families must see to it that their children are soundly educated.”

The problem, of course, is that the supply is near at hand and plentiful.

While Helmand province has consistently been the biggest producer, other areas have seen opium cultivation fall in recent years, only for it to bounce back. Nangarhar was designated “poppy-free” by the UNODC in 2008, but since then the area under cultivation has expanded massively. The UNODC’s last annual survey indicatesn that 157 square kilometres of Nangarhar farmland was growing poppies last year, compared with 32 sq km in 2012.

“The link between insecurity and opium cultivation observed in the country since 2007 continued to exist in 2013, as witnessed by the fact that the vast majority of opium cultivation remained confined to the country’s southern and western provinces, which are dominated by insurgency and organised criminal networks,” the Afghanistan Opium Survey says.

According to Haidari, “Out of Nangarhar’s 22 districts, there are three or four where the government has greater access and where drugs are not being cultivated – maybe. They’re grown in all the other districts.”

Some people here claim that it is not just the Taleban but also local government officials who connive in this lucrative industry.

A tribal elder in the Khogyani district, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed that some district government heads paid informal leaders to instruct farmers to grow poppies.

“Everyone has grown poppy in Khogyani,” he said. “I too have grown it on all of my land, because we are no longer frightened of poppy eradication [programmes].”

The provincial governor’s spokesman, Abdulzai, dismissed such claims.

“If we find evidence that any official has told people to grow poppies, we’ll hand him over to the legal and judicial authorities,” he said.

Meanwhile, heroin continues to take its toll on young people in Nangarhar.

In the Amir Shahid gardens, 18-year-old Jawed is begging for money to fund his habit. He has been on heroin for the past eight months, after being introduced to it by friends. Now he is estranged from his family, homeless, and forced to sleep in the park.

“You’re acting like you’re from the police,” he said, refusing to answer any more questions and walking off.

Some Jalalabad residents accuse traders and food-sellers who own stalls in the parks of selling drugs on the side.

“They openly pay off the police and sell heroin here,” claimed Mohebullah, 20, visiting the Seraj ul-Emarat garden with some friends.

Stallholders in the park denied any involvement.

“Come and search the whole stall,” one of them, called Anwar. “If you can’t find any [drugs], then you owe me a fine.”

Shadab, who runs the stall next door, insisted that dealers came in from elsewhere to sell heroin in the park.

As a former police officer, Sharaf said the government needed to take action against the traffickers who were destroying so many lives.

On his own addiction problem, he said merely, “There is no shortage of grief in this country. Addiction is the only way to be relieved of one's grief.”

Hijratullah Ekhtyar is an IWPR reporter in Nangarhar Province.

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